Exxon Valdez anniversary casts shadow over Earth Day

Raincoast Conservation Society's Chris Genovali writes about the state of marine ecology and future oil transportation

The recent anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster casts a long shadow over impending Earth Day events in British Columbia, as two controversial pipeline projects propose to deliver what has become known as “the world’s dirtiest oil” from Alberta’s tar sands to the Pacific coast, posing a major hazard to BC’s wildlife.

The Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain pipelines also threaten to deliver habitat destruction and direct killing of wildlife by introducing the risk of chronic and catastrophic oil spills in terrestrial and marine environments that host rare, endangered, vulnerable, and ecologically valuable species and ecosystems.

The proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway project includes twin pipelines connecting a tar sands refinery hub near Edmonton and a marine terminal at Kitimat where 225 supertankers per year would navigate the oft-perilous waters of the rocky north coast. One of the pipelines would carry tar sands crude to the coast for export to energy-hungry Asian and American markets; the other would import highly toxic condensate.

Energy giant Kinder Morgan wants to triple the amount of crude oil being shipped from Vancouver through the Georgia Strait, Fraser estuary, Gulf Islands, Haro Strait and Juan de Fuca Strait.

Kinder Morgan has proposed expansions to their Trans Mountain pipeline that would carry 700,000 barrels of tar sands crude per day to Burrard Inlet by 2016 for export to off shore markets, translating into 229 oil tankers annually traversing the Salish Sea region.

Looking at the past, present and future impacts to whales provides an example of the pending threats to the welfare of wild animals from the Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain pipelines.

The damage and deprivation to marine and terrestrial wildlife from catastrophic oil spills have already been extensive. For example, the effects of the Exxon Valdez disaster 23 years ago on wildlife populations in Alaska’s Prince William Sound have been widespread and long lasting.

Although no oiled carcasses were recovered, two different populations of killer whales, both in Prince William Sound at the time of the spill, experienced dramatic declines. The fish-eating AB resident pod of killer whales lost 14 of 36 members following the spill. A second population, the AT1 mammal-eating transients, was seen surfacing in the oil near the Exxon Valdez. Since then, the group has not successfully reproduced. Most likely, this unique killer whale population will go extinct.

Transforming the B.C. coast into an “energy corridor” poses multiple threats to cetacean populations, through prospective spills to underwater noise to the ship strikes associated with the transport of oil and condensate.

Humpback whale recovery could be put in jeopardy with the approval of Northern Gateway; humpbacks can often be found bubble-net feeding at the entrance of the proposed Douglas Channel tanker route.

B.C.’s threatened population of northern resident killer whales, and the slowly increasing population of endangered fin whales, would also be put directly in harm’s way if Northern Gateway proceeds.

Whales on the south coast will also be put at risk if the Trans Mountain expansion moves ahead. One example of this risk is the overlay of the tanker route onto large sections of the critical habitat for the endangered southern resident killer whales that reside in the transnational waters of B.C. and Washington state.

This population faces ongoing multiple threats, including declining salmon stocks, physical and acoustic disturbance, and toxic contamination.

The southern residents are a small population hindered by previous loss of individuals that make them vulnerable to chance circumstances. Dropping birth rates, increasing death rates or random events like disease, food shortages or oil spills can be irreversible.

Increased tanker activity could also potentially affect a geographically distinct cross-border population of grey whales termed the Eastern North Pacific Southern Group, which are currently listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

Why is there little concern about the pain, fear, suffering and even death that wildlife will endure if the Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain pipelines projects are approved? The short answer is that industrial society places a higher priority on economic growth than on environmental health and the welfare of other species.

Chris Genovali is executive director of Raincoast Conservation Foundation.